Were You There? Sermon Series: #3 – The Good Thief

SCRIPTURE – Luke 23:32-43

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said,“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the Jews.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

SERMON
Were You There? Sermon Series
Sermon #3 – The Good Thief
March 3, 2013

In our Sermon Talkback session this past week, one of the participants reading over the text of last Sunday’s sermon caught an inexcusable grammar mistake. In one sentence, I had written, “Like Judas, we’ll never always make the right choices.” She said, “Did you really mean to say ‘never always?’ Which is it?” Busted. I pride myself on proper spelling and grammar (except in hastily written emails), and yet I had been exposed by a congregation member for what I truly am – an oxymoron. Or, at least, a user of oxymorons.

You probably know a lot of other oxymorons in your life. An oxymoron is two words or phrases put together that have opposite meanings. Let’s spend some time alone together. Yuck, that’s pretty ugly. She’s an advanced beginner. That was a brief sermon. Country singer Buck Owens once had a hit with the song, “Act Naturally.” I once had a colleague who said I had clearly misunderstood what he was saying. How do you clearly misunderstand something? And when you go to shut down a computer, what button do you hit? The “Start” button. The world is full of oxymorons.

The peculiar beauty of an oxymoron is the tension it creates. Something jumbo is big and a shrimp is small, so the phrase “jumbo shrimp” creates this dissonance in our minds that we can’t quite reconcile. How can a shrimp be jumbo? That’s almost exactly what I meant. Well, was it almost what you meant, or was it exactly what you meant? Oxymorons create cognitive tension for us that we can’t resolve, and we have to figure out what to do with it. Do we seek clarification: is it almost or exactly? Or do we simply choose to live with the tension and eat the jumbo shrimp? The world is full of oxymorons.

So is the gospel. Think about it: the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Jesus says, “When you helped the least of these, you helped me.” Those who try to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will save it. We worship an oxymoron: crucified savior, God made flesh. There’s a dynamic tension in those phrases that confronts us, forcing us to figure out what to with them.

Here’s another one: the good thief. That’s a bit like a genuine imitation, isn’t it? The tension is created for us because usually there’s nothing good about thieves. In Jesus’ time, a thief could be guilty of any number of crimes, from petty burglary to subversive acts committed directly against the Roman leaders. Maybe this guy pickpocketed Pilate or try to sell a centurion a fake sundial. We don’t know. It’s doubtful that he would be given such an extreme penalty for a petty crime, but the Romans had a habit of making examples of people by crucifying them in very public places. You’d think twice about stealing something when the last guy who tried was nailed to a cross. We shouldn’t spend too much time on his crime, though, because in the end it doesn’t matter. Jesus doesn’t ask the man to give an accounting of his wrongdoings. Jesus simply hears this man’s plea – remember me when you come into your kingdom – then assures him of a place in paradise that very day.

That, I believe, is what we all strive for. Paradise. The ancient Jewish understanding of this word was an intermediate place people went after they died while awaiting the return of the Messiah. A peaceful place to abide while waiting to be with God for eternity. In a sense, the quest for paradise is what has driven humankind to push their boundaries. From explorers like Columbus and Magellan, to our own Manifest Destiny that drove the frontier westward, to space exploration, we are looking for our own paradise. Heaven on earth, another oxymoron.

And yet, as the thief learns, true paradise cannot be achieved, but only received, and anyone who truly asks gets in. This episode is what you would call a deathbed conversion. At the last moment, a scoundrel who’s lived a shadowy life repents and gets the key to heaven right before his last breath. We’re supposed to cheer, right? Another lost sheep is found! That’s all well and good when the story stays matted on the pages of scripture, but what about when it happens in real life?

That’s the premise of “Dead Man Walking,” a great movie and wonderful test of the limits of our understanding of grace.  Sean Penn is Matthew Poncelet, a man accused of murder, and Susan Sarandon is Sister Helen Prejean, who visits Poncelet in jail and tries to help him admit to his crime. For much of the movie Poncelet is like the first thief on the cross: angry, sarcastic, defiant. It’s only during his final hours that he truly opens up and repents of his sins, admitting that he was one who committed the murders. And then he is executed by lethal injection, arms spread out as if he were on a cross.

I know a lot of people who had trouble with the theological concept at work here. The oxymoronic tension of a forgiven murderer is almost too much for some people to bear. Why should a murderer receive forgiveness and enter into the same kingdom as me? I’ve never killed, I’ve never committed any really bad sins, and yet I’m going to be seated at the heavenly banquet table next to Matthew Poncelet?

Yes, we are, and probably next to a lot of other people we don’t expect to see there. That’s the beauty of the good news of Jesus Christ: he died so that we all might have new life. And all means all, even those people we think don’t deserve it. That’s the hard truth that the Good Thief and “Dead Man Walking” force us to confront. There is no prioritization of sins in the Bible. Believe me, I’ve looked! There’s not a chapter in Numbers or Zechariah that says, “Lying is a one-star sin, cheating is three-star sin, and murder is five-star sin.” It’s not there. What is there is this, in Romans: “All have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God.” All. That’s you and me and Matthew Poncelet and every other person you can think of, good or bad. The Bible doesn’t separate us based on our sins. All have fallen short.

That’s the essence of the good news. We’ve all fallen short, but we’ll never fall so far that we’re out of God’s reach. That’s good news for those of us who try hard to live Christian lives, but that’s great news for the thieves and the liars and all the other people we don’t expect to see. Even they can be called a child of God.

At one point in “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Prejean looks at Poncelet and says, “You are a son of God.” Through his tears he says, “Thank you. I’ve never been called a son of God before.” Then he laughs and says, “I’ve been called a son of a you-know-what plenty of times, but I’ve never been called a son of God.”

I’m guessing the Good Thief had been called a son of a you-know-what plenty of times, but had never been called a son of God until he was dying on the cross. That’s the power in what he asks: “Jesus, remember me.” He’s felt forgotten by God. And yet, he doesn’t join in the mocking and derision like the other thief. He doesn’t ask Jesus to miraculously save him from the consequences of his actions. He is a flawed human being, and simply wants to be remembered. He is proof that we are living oxymorons. As Martin Luther said, we are “Simul Justus et Peccator – righteous, and at the same time sinners.” We are saved sinners. That’s the tension we live with as believers. We know we should be better and yet we can’t help being our flawed selves. Paul spells it out clearly in Romans: “ I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”  What an oxymoron! We people of faith are called to live with this tension, trusting that Jesus stands in the gap between who God wants us to be and who we are. The issue is not the greatness of our sin but our willingness to admit our need for help and to take the next step – which may be the first step for us – toward change.

But right there is the stumbling block for so many of us. How can we be helped if we don’t admit our need for it? How can we worship a Savior if we think we don’t need to be saved? I bet the Good Thief spent most of his life relying completely on his own abilities. It was him against the world, and he had what it takes to make it, doggone it. He could pull himself up by his bootstraps, fend for himself, look out for number one. He didn’t need handouts or hand-me-downs or a helping hand, until his hands had nails through them. It was there, at his lowest point, at his most helpless, that the thief looked beyond himself and saw, not another criminal or vagabond or low-life, but a king. “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” And with Jesus’ response, the Thief is given the key to paradise. If there’s hope for him, there’s hope for all the thieves we know, including me.

I stole a candy bar once. I was in fourth grade, and my friends and I were at the local 7-11. Someone had left a Snickers lying on the video game we were playing. One of my friends asked me, “Is that yours?” and in a moment of mindless bravado and earthshaking stupidity I put it in my pocket and said, “It is now.”

I quickly walked out of the store, but I was followed by the clerk, who stopped me and said, “Do you have a candy bar in your pocket?” Busted. “Yes.” “Did you pay for that candy bar?” “No.” I was already envisioning the penalty for my crime: a call to my mom, flashing blue lights, handcuffs. Then the lady pulled a dollar bill out of her pocket and said, “That’s OK. I’ll pay for it.” And she walked away.

The Good Thief says, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” For our sins, for the things we have done and the things we have left undone, for the things we have said and the things we should have said, for the things we do and the things we shouldn’t do but do anyway, there is a price. But Christ has said, “That’s OK. I’ll pay for it.” Can he do that for you? All you have to do is ask. Simul Justus et Peccator. Because of what Christ has done for us, we can look forward to an eternity of oxymorons: a paradise filled with thieves and sinners and you and me. Jesus, remember me.

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